Carl Henrickson Of Little Washington Winery Has Found The Key To Vineyard Victory Is Not Only Producing Great Products But Also Offering Education
Photos by Annie Laura of 621 Studios
Little Washington Winery started out as a hobby back in 2006 when Carl Henrickson bought a wine kit and decided to start making wine on the kitchen counter of the townhouse he shared with his wife, Donna, in Alexandria. Soon the slightly cramped space was loaded with vino-making gear.
“We took wine making and vineyard management classes, and all the sudden our weekends became consumed with looking for slopey, southeast facing land,” says Carl.”
The couple fell in love with a farm on Christmas Tree Lane in Little Washington—60 miles west of Washington D.C., high on the edge of Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park—and both decided to jump off the career ladder, quit their jobs and move to the country.
“The adventure isn’t as easy as the classes made it seem, but it is an enormously passionate lifestyle change, it is hard work, and it is living off the land with a full frontal view of Old Rag. How bad can that be?”
Not bad at all, especially when, in addition to a vineyard offering magnificent views and well-received wines, Carl has discovered a few more secrets to success—one-of-a-kind experiences like his Dirt Road Wine Club and going beyond tastings to wine education with his extremely popular Foodie-U Wine School. We spoke Carl recently about his classes and philosophy on providing patrons with top-quality wine while also making sure they learn something.
What have you learned over the years about growing wine in Virginia?
It is hard work. It does consume you so you better be fully committed. Listen to the scientists at Virginia Tech. Don’t listen to everyone’s best next idea.
What are some changes you have made since the early years to better your product? Have any of your philosophies changed or been thrown out completely?
In short we have learned to let the fruit speak. We are emulating the wine-making style coming out of Burgundy, Switzerland, Piedmont—less oak, less sugar, more fruit. Instead of just making wine we are making wine to pair with food. We don’t make wines to catch a judge’s attention and win an award. Our wines are trending toward dry, lower alcohol, more food-friendly wines.
What is your favorite grape to grow?
I personally love the chemistry of the blends. I love crafting the perfect big red masterpiece in the winery. But for my favorite grape to grow and make wine from I would say chardonnay is our big thing here at Little Washington Winery. We make steel and oaked chardonnays depending on our mood and what our guests are telling us they like. When we first opened we noticed a lot of guests covering their glass and saying ‘no thank you’ when we said the word chardonnay. Every winery makes a chardonnay, and people think they know the wine and don’t care to taste it. It became a challenge for us to change the mindset.
Which of your the wines you make is your personal favorite?
The very first wine I ever made and continue to make is called George. It’s a Meritage blend based on the style of left bank Bordeauxs. It’s my chemistry project, my masterpiece. Every year I tweak it a bit trying to perfect one bottle of wine before I die. It has garnered some impressive awards, including the number one wine in Virginia, so now when I play with the blend I have to keep in mind George’s pedigree. In my opinion it is way better this year than it was when it was named the number one wine, the third best blend on the East Coast and was mistaken for a $100 Bordeaux.
Speak a little bit about which wine is most popular with your consumers. Do you feel that over the years people are becoming more open to and knowledgeable about Virginia wine?
We’re having fun with rosés. As part of our Dirt Road Wine Tour we have been introducing people to roses at the tasting bar because they tend to garner such a big aha moment for guests. Most people see the color and steer clear of rosés because they think of cotton candy. The ones we are finding are totally opposite of that stereotype. We have made three rosés of our own so far. Each year they have been totally different depending on what we are doing with our reds. This year we brought our favorite Tavel, Provence and Uruguay roses into the winery to taste while we decided how to make ours. As our idea emerged we had a very rare rose with a secret blend. I have to say, we nailed it.
You seem to offer some unique experiences that set you apart from some of the more traditional wineries. Can you talk about your Dirt Road Tour and Club and how the idea came about?
When we bought the farm we called our buddy Andrew and said come and look at our retirement plan. He is one of the top sommeliers (professional drinker) in the country. He started a very cool project, Vino 50, the Grape American Road Trip. He is looking for the most incredible wines you’ll never find anywhere because they come from small farms in funny places and are often sold only on the farm. Some small producers, like us, don’t have a goal to produce wines for grocery stores … the goal is to perfect one bottle of wine. So, Andrew is always out on his Road Trip, and we told him, ‘When you come across an incredible wine we want to showcase it at Little Washington Winery.’ We feature the most amazing wines he and we are finding in our tasting room. Every visit is different here. We want our guests to taste a grape they have never heard of, learn something they never knew about wine and capture our quest of keeping small farms in farmland. We call it the Dirt Road Wine Tour.
And your ever-growing selection of wine boot camps and classes in the seminar room? How and when did those begin?
Everyone told us we better stick to Northern Virginia, where there are lots of people willing to drive to tasting rooms. But the farm we fell in love with is a little bit further off the beaten path. What we love most is the serenity of this place. It’s magical. Our proximity to the mountains makes you learn to relax. We wanted to share it with people like us who were always in that tense slow motion commute through the city. We opened our tasting room in 2011 and then we sat there. Waiting. Little Washington Winery is the last winery on the 211 trail. It quickly became obvious that we needed to come up with a plan to get people to make the drive first and work their way home. So we started an irresistible wine class—Wine Bootcamp. Give us two hours, and we’ll turn you into a certified wine snob. We now have around 11,000 graduates of Wine Bootcamp. And, from their requests, we have developed 12 additional wine-centric classes that we teach here.
What is your favorite class/seminar to teach?
All of our classes are very well received. Eighty Minutes Around the World is a fun one—it’s a geography class of the world through wine. Triple Threat is a crazy amazing challenge of a class. In that seminar you learn to pair Chocolate, Cheese and wine. The 15 Rules of Food & Wine Pairing is a hard class to prepare for because it is a tad heavy on the food, but everyone loves it.
Why do you feel it is important to educate people about wine?
Remember, wine is only a beverage. Interesting and lots of fun but just a beverage. Every wine has its own history and story. When you know what’s going down on the farm and with the making of wine your entire perspective of the bottle on the dinner table changes. It’s like you have invited a friend and now you’re going to cook his favorite foods and tell stories. Our Dirt Road Wine Club members have started to be a lot more selective of the wines they enjoy.
Have these Foodie-U classes been well received, and would you consider them one of the keys to your success?
The Foodie-U Wine School is the hardest and the very best thing we have done. It takes a lot more work and energy than sitting there waiting for people to walk through the door, but it really does give wine enthusiasts a deeper glimpse into what’s really happening on their dinner table when they invite a bottle of wine.
What is on the horizon for Little Washington Winery in next year, and what what are some of the highlights in your long-term plan?
If it’s not fun and interesting we don’t do it. If our employees can’t deliver a fun and interesting experience for our guests we fix that. We launched the Wine Loves Chocolate tasting rooms a few years ago, and they went absolutely bonkers. The tasting room in Little Washington was named the best retail wine shop in Virginia (we think it’s because it is half full of chocolate). The tasting room in Charlottesville was named the best wine bar in Charlottesville for the past two consecutive years. We might add another Wine Loves Chocolate this year. We are working on two new wine and food pairing adventures to be announced soon. And, we do have another big, big surprise coming up. Stay tuned.
How do you feel about the future of the Virginia wine industry in general?
Thanks to friendly legislation, wineries in Virginia have the ability to thrive and survive. The economic impact a vibrant wine industry can have on a state is starting to really show in Virginia. We have a hand full of celebrity wineries here who are so successfully garnering attention toward the state. When the national market is paying attention, everyone wins. Most of the almost 300 wineries in Virginia are small farm, family-run operations. Together we all are saving a lot of farmland and creating living wage rural jobs and making a huge impact on Virginia’s economy.